Melba Wilson — chef, cookbook author, and New York City native — opened Melba’s restaurant in Harlem in 2005, having previously worked at such institutions as Sylvia’s and Rosa Mexicano. In addition to running her own restaurant, she serves as the president of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which works with over 26,000 restaurants across the five boroughs.

The below interview is part of our New York City Tomorrow series, where we're asking New Yorkers for their utopian ideas of how the city could look. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What is your utopian dream for future dining in NYC?

My utopia for restaurant dining in New York City would include something that had larger sidewalks and outdoor seating, which is wonderful. Al fresco dining is something that people are really into. I would also like to see closed streets — when you close the street, of course there’s less parking, but the benefits outweigh the losses. Closing the street, statistics have shown, brings a 62% jump in revenue to all businesses, not just restaurants.

And in New York City where there’s so much overcrowding, and where we have over 8 million people, it would be wonderful to have some of our streets closed just like they do in Times Square, so people can sit outside, dine, relax, have a cup of coffee, etcetera. In a city that’s 24 hours, 365, it allows us an opportunity to unwind. And one thing that Covid has definitely taught me is that we need to take time to do that. Unfortunately, I’ve had to learn that during this pandemic. Time to regroup is important.

I would also hope New York City would have less fines! As a business owner, and as president of the hospitality alliance, I really do believe that the city could be more thoughtful about what we provide as small businesses. I talk to small business owners all around the country, and it just seems like New York City is really tough on small businesses. They could be more considerate about the jobs we provide, as well as the revenue that we provide.

Oftentimes, especially in the restaurant business, we are the first job for so many people. The restaurant industry doesn’t discriminate — we don’t care if you’re 14 years old and this is your summer youth job, or if you’re 60 and you enjoy bartending or hostessing or serving. We’re very friendly in that way. And also, when you work at a restaurant, it’s a job that’ll allow you to navigate through life. When you look at a server who is dealing with a hungry guest, when you don’t know what that guest might have encountered before they arrived at that restaurant, it’s our job to make sure that their experience is pleasant and comforting.

I know there are thousands of restaurants in the city at a given time, but how long does the average one last, from the time it opens to the time it goes out of business?

It’s between one to two years. It’s one of the toughest businesses to survive in.

Do you think it’s way too hard to succeed? If a place goes out of business, was it simply not meeting a need, or is it way too hard to survive?

No, I think New York City in particular is very brutal on small businesses, and specifically restaurants, where the profit margin is extremely low to begin with. Most of us that get into the restaurant industry do it out of a passion for taking care of other people, and we use food as the conduit for that. Food is our drug of choice, it’s the way we show our love and appreciation for others. And of course we want to make a profit. I want to feed my son, I want to be able to send him to a good school, and take care of his education and his needs. But the primary reason most of us get into this industry is for the love of the business.

You mention that for a lot of people, working in restaurants is their first job, and a jumping off point for then doing all kinds of things. It also seems like a hard way to make a living long-term in New York City. What needs to change for more restaurant workers to be able to support themselves and their families?

One of the things we’re working on at the New York City Hospitality Alliance is we want to be able to split tips with the back of the house. Right now, that’s not allowed — but that’s something we would love to do. If our servers could split tips with the kitchen or the back of the house, that would make it definitely something that’s more palatable for our employees.

And for someone like me, it’s important not to outprice my community. Me being born, bred, and buttered in Harlem, I want to make sure that a lot of our guests are able to dine at Melba’s. A lot of [them] are blue collar workers who’ve been in the community for years, a lot of them were born here. And it’s important that I don’t outprice my neighborhood. So in order to do that, I have to keep my prices at a certain level.

Are you able to keep those prices at a certain level and still pay your employees a solid wage?

At this point I am, but I have to tell you, it’s a juggling act. And sometimes it’s my catering business that helps out the restaurant. And especially because of changes in our community and gentrification, the rent is going up, it makes it really difficult for a lot of small mom-and-pop businesses like mine to stay in the community. We want to have a seat at the table in the house that we built. But, gentrification also has some plusses — so many more people are venturing into the community, and pre-Covid, our sales yearly had gone up. But the rent is still too damn high.

One thing many of us have realized during the shutdown is that if there are 26,000 restaurants, there are 26,000 wildly different rental agreements, with some places being safe, and others in danger of being booted by their landlord immediately. Do things need to be more uniform in terms of rent?

I think that things definitely need to be fairer and more unified. When you look at our fixed expenses, rent is our highest expense, so it makes it very difficult if you’re a neighborhood spot with minimum prices, or even moderate prices, to survive. And for me, when I think about landlords, I think it’s more difficult when the landlord has to keep the space [filled and] open. So it behooves the landlord to work with us, in terms of small businesses.

And then there’s the fabric and culture of a neighborhood — if I were a landlord, I would prefer to have a great tenant there for ten years, fifteen years, instead of changing tenants every two to three years.

Are there situations where restaurants should be more expensive?

I think it depends on the location, the rent, and definitely on the food that you’re serving. There’s a formula that has to be met. And it depends on those variables.

I know earlier in your career you were working at Sylvia’s. How old is her restaurant?

Sylvia’s started in 1962, so it’s going to be 60 years.

What can the New York City restaurant world, where places come and go in the span of one or two years, learn from places like Sylvia’s that have been around for so long?

Well, one of the things that Sylvia did was she purchased the building. She purchased the real estate, and I think that was a very smart thing she did back in ‘62. She purchased the building, and then she went on to purchase the building to the right of her and the left of her. Now she owns pretty much everything on the block with the exception of the church on the corner. So I think purchasing the real estate is important.

However, at the time when I started out, I started out with money that I saved under my mattress and it ended up being a little over $300,000. That would not have been enough money to purchase a building. But I think purchasing the property is probably one of the most invaluable things that I’ve learned from Sylvia’s.

Ophelia DeVore, who wasn’t a restaurateur but was very instrumental in my life, Ophelia DeVore taught me the power of the pivot! You know? When things change, how you are able to pivot — to look and see what’s going on, and change with it. And I think that’s one of the reasons we were able to survive the pandemic. Every year, I come up with a word, it’s a word that we make a conscious effort to implement. Last year the word was “kinder” — we wanted to be kinder not just to our guests, but to one another. And this year, my word was “pivot.” And it was interesting, I didn’t know why pivot came into my mind. But three months later, I really did find out why it was such a key word in our restaurant. Little did I know, we would have to pivot in order to survive.

outdoor seating at Melba's

New outdoor seating at Melba's

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New outdoor seating at Melba's
Emily Andrews for Rockwell Group

In your wildest fantasy, how would you describe New York City’s restaurant world in five years?

I’d definitely love to see people dining in the streets, and streets being closed to traffic. I’d love to see contactless menus, contactless payments. We’re working on something with PayPal right now to develop contactless payments, so that’s a big deal for us.

But I’d also love to see the city on one accord with small businesses, especially restaurants. And recognizing and understanding the value that we add to our communities. When a restaurant closes, it’s not just a building that you see there at a certain location. When a restaurant closes, it’s affecting the produce farmers, it’s affecting the wine vineyards, it’s affecting paper good suppliers, it’s affecting truck drivers that deliver these goods. It’s a layered effect — it’s not just a building. It’s affecting a community. So I think it’s important for cities to understand the value that we add.

We’re providing a place for people to have fellowship over food. Food doesn’t care about your religion, it doesn’t care about your race, it doesn’t care about your ethnicity or your financial or educational background. The only thing food requires is that you sit down, relax, eat, and enjoy. And in a city that’s so stressful, those are moments that are invaluable.